America’s Choice, Europe’s Predicament: the EU and U.S. in the world after the Obama era

Clinton's presidency would mean a continuation of Obama's foreign policy, whereas Trump would undermine the current US-centric system of alliances

With US presidential elections coming closer and the future of American foreign policy unclear, the ECFR Warsaw Office held a debate titled America’s Choice, Europe’s Predicament: the EU and U.S. in the world after the Obama era. It hosted:

  • Jeremy Shapiro – Research Director, European Council on Foreign Relations
  • Sylke Tempel – Editor-in-Chief, Internationale Politik and Berlin Policy Journal
  • Marcin Zaborowski – Executive Vice-President, Head of the Warsaw Office, Center for European Policy Analysis

and was moderated by Piotr Buras – Director of the Warsaw Office, European Council on Foreign Relations.

The discussion revolved around several themes: whether to interpret the foreign policy of Barack as a case of retrenchment, the alliance fatigue in the US, European foreign policy in the face of US shifting global priorities, and the limits of US power.

Mr. Shapiro started by describing the foreign policy stances of both US presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Shapiro focused on what he considered Trump’s ‘core beliefs’: a zero-sum view of international politics, which fuels his opposition to the American-led international order, as well as his admiration and respect for strongmen, with whom he would like to negotiate personally. His would withdraw US security guarantees and enact protectionist policies. As for Clinton, her foreign policy would be broadly a continuation of Obama’s. Mr. Shapiro disagreed with common perception of Obama’s policies as retrenchment, characterising them instead as reprioritisation of interests and threats in the context of a decline in relative US power. Clinton might be more hawkish but would make mostly cosmetic changes, he also argued.

Mrs. Tempel broadly concurred with Mr. Shapiro and presented the German perspective on future US foreign policy. She emphasized that Germany understands the need to contribute more to European security and the global commons as well as the importance of tact and dialogue with other EU member states in order not to come across as a hegemonic power.

On the other hand, Mr Zaborowski presented a critical appraisal of Obama’s policy, citing Iraq, Syria, Libya and Ukraine as proofs of US retrenchment and its detrimental effects. He argued that both candidates would reduce US involvement in Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe, if for different reasons.

In the ensuing discussion on retrenchment both Mr. Shapiro and Mrs. Tempel underscored the limits of US capabilities and cases where US participation is not desirable, while Mr. Zaborowski argued that lack of US involvement greatly strengthened Russia’s hand in Syria and Ukraine and strained its relations with allies elsewhere. Mr. Shapiro responded that differences in perceptions of threats and interests between allies are fundamentally inescapable.

Linked to that was a disagreement on Europe’s will and capability to act on Ukraine. Without US involvement, European leaders are either weak or uninterested in this issue, claimed Mr. Zaborowski, while Mrs. Tempel responded by underscoring the results of Normandy Quartet activity and German opposition to Russian actions in Ukraine. She also argued that greater US involvement would probably have limited effects.

The panellists agreed that the alliance fatigue, identified by Mr. Zaborowski, results in the growth of isolationist sentiments in the US. Mr. Shapiro argued that this needs to be addressed by having US allies contribute more to sustain the global order, but Mrs. Tempel countered that this trend is a reflection of a deeper dissatisfaction with societal and global changes and cannot be reversed so easily.

As for the prospects of Trump’s presidency, Mr. Zaborowski underlined that his powers would be limited, but Mr. Shapiro argued that Republican control over all branches of government would weaken these limits, while Mrs. Tempel noted the relative ease with which the system of checks-and-balances has been undermined in other cases. Trump would be capable of causing great danger to alliance system with no-one to stop him, she argued. Mrs. Tempel also argued that Trumps view of international politics and negotiations is badly outdated and would thus leave him at a disadvantage and make him incapable of tackling a necessary reform of the international governance system.

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